Tactics for effective explanatory prose

A session at Information Design conference 2009

Friday 3rd April, 2009

11:45am to 11:45am (GMT)

In today’s increasingly complex and technology-dominated world, it is not enough to produce manuals for users of gadgets and instructions for patients; we also need documents that help citizens in making sense of the world and of the complex systems that run it. The growing proportion of the elderly and the faster pace of technological change both demand suitable literature for a truly inclusive and empowered citizenry.

Clear text is an essential component of effective information design However, clarity is hard to measure. Clarity of instructions may be measured by monitoring performance and clarity of explanatory text, by testing comprehension. But, on finding that comprehension scores are low, how does one go about improving them? What tactics can writers use to make their writing easier to understand? My background in research made me turn to scientists: How do they explain to the lay public something as abstract as the laws of heredity, as esoteric as fossils, or as minute as molecules? As I pored over the prose of those who are masters of the art, I began to realize that their repertoire comprises a dozen tactics to put across to lay readers difficult-to-understand concepts, mechanisms, and processes.

My analysis showed that these tactics are used by all writers in writing about any topic. The raw material for the study was anthologies such as Richard Dawkins’s Oxford Book of Modern Scientific Writing, the two annual series, namely Best American Science Writing and Best American Nature and Science Writing, winners of the Royal Society prize (formerly the Aventis prize) for the best-written science book for the general public, and winners of the Pulitzer prize for explanatory writing, supplemented with literature on the craft of writing. The paper that I should like to submit focuses on these tactics, including the following:

  • Use examples and analogies.
  • Use questions as headings and offer answers.
  • Address the reader directly.
  • Include ‘advance organizers’.
  • Employ logical sequences (spatial, temporal, hierarchical, etc.) and make the sequence explicit.
  • Reinforce ideas through repetition.

Each tactic is illustrated with appropriate examples. The tactics do indeed offer generalizable conclusions and ideas that writers can use. The reasons why the strategies are successful and how writers can use them to improve their own writing are also discussed.

About the speaker

This person is speaking at this event.
Yateendra Joshi

I copyedit papers in agri sciences and teach communication skills to academics/researchers. Interests: designing info on public transport, explanatory writing bio from Twitter

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Time 11:45am11:45am GMT

Date Fri 3rd April 2009

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